My daughter, who is eight, tells me that her favorite Christmas carol is “Riu, Riu Chiu,” a half-millenium-old Spanish song about the perfection of the Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus. With vivid lyrics about furious wolves and innocent lambs, accompanied by whatever handheld percussion happens to be available, it at once explains the theology of both the incarnation and the immaculate conception (centuries before even the Catholic Church accepted the latter) and gets everyone off their feet to dance and spin — if, hearing it today, they dare dance to a Christmas carol. An eight year-old dares, because she happily doesn’t see the contradiction between devotion and dancing. And I’m realizing that she’s right.
The story of the Krampus has been making the rounds lately. For those who haven’t heard, he’s an old-world Germanic mythical creature who terrorizes naughty children at Christmas. Apparently pepper-spray-wielding shoppers at Target aren’t scary enough for Americans these days, because various cities are holding a Krampuslauf, or Krampus parade, this month. One of those cities is Philadelphia, and that’s a tragic heresy — not because it’s unchristian, but because Philadelphia is surrounded by the Pennsylvania German heartland, and the Pennsylvania German tradition has its own Christmas bogeyman, the Belsnickel. Before we go running back to Europe for bizarre new traditions, let’s take a closer look at one of our own.
You have, no doubt, come here hoping to learn of some radical old-fashioned method for preparing cranberry sauce, some cabalistic ritual of autumn berrying well known to the ancients but lost to our rational age, the merest taste of which will produce shivers of delight claimed in one long-lost poem (once decoded and translated from the Coptic) to last three full days and create breezes that resonate in the distant tropics. Some search for wisdom, others truth or beauty: you, my friend, seek cranberry sauce.
Plumping up dead birds with bread crumbs is a bit of culinary foolery that dates at least to medieval Europe, as is combining bread crumbs with meat, fat, and spices and stuffing, or forcing, this “forcemeat” into nearly any available receptacle. Stuffing a turkey is therefore not at all an American idea in origin, and it seems not to be an American idea in style, either, because in our perfectionist age we’ve decided that it’s not only detrimental to the quality of the meat but actually dangerous. In the old days, half the point of roasting a turkey was to bring the stuffing to fulfillment by soaking it through with juice and rendered fat and unidentifiable squishy bits of the inside of the bird. The meat was an afterthought, a requirement of the holiday, a vehicle for the stuffing and building block for sandwiches the next day, and if it were a little stringy, well, that’s why God made mayonnaise and gravy. The problem, of course, is that by the time the stuffing is heated through, the turkey has overcooked, and if you don’t heat it through, you will surely die before Christmas of salmonella. Baked on the side, though, the stuffing is dull, sterile, unloved, all wasted potential like an unfreshened heifer. Then the turkey was dry and the stuffing was moist; now we’ve reversed the equation. It’s certainly more precise, but I’m not sure it’s an improvement.
Let’s pretend, though, that stuffing is a word we mean literally, as opposed to dressing, which is wont feel like leftovers before it’s even been served. It’ll be more fun this way.
Roast turkey didn’t become de rigeur at Thanksgiving dinner until the nineteenth century. Before Thanksgiving became an institutionalized celebration of Americanness it, and its menus, were a more ad hoc affair, featuring whatever any family thought appropriate. By the 1850s New Englanders had more or less standardized the holiday in an attempt to recapture something that had been lost since colonial days, some simplicity or integrity or je ne sais quoi. Turkey, being identifiably American, fit the bill, and we’ve been stuck with it ever since.
I am not, however, going to give you a recipe for roasting a turkey. Roasting a turkey is a simple affair if you are not inclined to be perfectionist about it, which you ought not be on Thanksgiving, for the simple reason that with all that family around, you are going to need to be too drunk to follow through on your perfectionism anyway, and will therefore inevitably be disappointed. You are, moreover, almost certainly not going to roast a turkey next Thursday. You are far more likely going to bake the thing, which is an altogether different matter.
Dishes have been invented, recipes written, foods sampled and praised through the millenia for reasons that have nothing to do with taste. Consider, for example, the peanut. Weird dirty little legume that it is, it sparked no great enthusiasm in the Europeans who found it in America and fed it to livestock and slaves. Africans in America were reminded of the ground nuts they knew and cooked them similarly, in soups and stews, but most Anglos would eat them only as snacks, in candy (such as the peanut brittle made by Afro-Caribbeans in Philadelphia in the early nineteenth century and sold from carts) or roasted and salted, cracked open and shells discarded on the street or the floor of the theater, a peculiarly American custom that set visiting Europeans’ teeth on edge. For a hundred years white Americans wolfed them in informal public settings but wouldn’t dream of eating them at home as part of an actual meal; peanuts were the proverbial girl a guy would sleep with but never marry. Why? Who knows? Maybe because Africans ate them, maybe because they grew in the ground, maybe because nineteenth-century Anglo-Americans were singularly unadventurous eaters.
In 1903, Washburn-Crosby, the makers of Gold Medal Flour (they would later become General Mills), tried a new sort of magazine ad. Instead of a photo or illustration captioned by a short homily about how wonderful the flour was, this new ad, which ran in Ladies’ Home Journal, was simply a recipe for baking bread, written as a poem, with each verse accompanied by a photograph or an illustration. It’s terribly entertaining, if you enjoy that sort of thing — the rhymes are forced, the tone is cheesy, and it is, of course, by twenty-first century standards, cheerfully sexist. But it’s also a window into bread and baking at the turn of the last century, and into the ways industry was changing them — even inside the home.
When I found a reference on the internet to the first recipe for peanut butter cookies, I had to try it. Not because I expected them to be good peanut butter cookies, or even peanut butter cookies at all, but because I was, to put it gently, skeptical. I’ve learned to be skeptical of most claims to primacy in food history. Too often they aren’t all that carefully researched — not only because there may be other sources to consider, but because the people who make these claims have not actually tried the recipe to see if it is what it looks like. (That’s at least as true of professional historians as of amateurs.)
These “peanut wafers,” it turns out, are not what they may look like. They’re not the first of anything. They’re not even cookies. They’re more like experimental Progressive-era health food. But they’re interesting, and — surprisingly enough — they’re actually quite good.
For a few summers several years ago I made ketchup from half-bushel boxes of paste tomatoes, using a recipe from an old issue of Fine Cooking. The ketchup had good flavor, but it was a little too reminiscent of something Italian, with lots of bottom notes from charred onion and the faint pizza-aroma of oregano. We liked it but never used up a batch. The problem was that it substituted for industrial ketchup in only a few of its uses. It made a good topping for burgers and dipping for fries, but as a base for cocktail sauce it was terrible. Industrial ketchup essentially has no aroma; it’s pure mouth-taste — sweet, sour, salt, and umami. To emulate that blend at home would be a waste of time and money; homemade ketchup ought to have flavor. But making ketchup flavorful makes it something entirely different.
I decided to give homemade ketchup another try this summer, and this time, I went back to the nineteenth century for inspiration.
A couple of weeks ago I spent my first day volunteering as a costumed museum interpreter, which is not something I ever saw myself doing. I’d worked with the site director and staff before, and figured that, as an out-of-work historian, I’d see if I could help them out in any way — doing a little research or leading a few tours, I thought, but when they found out that I build furniture with hand tools, the next thing I knew I was being fitted for 1870s clothes. And so there I was on a ninety-degree North Carolina June Saturday outside a nineteenth-century farmhouse demonstrating “traditional” woodworking.